Understanding Putin’s Moves to Keep His Hold on Power

President Vladimir Putin has proposed the most sweeping overhaul of Russia’s constitution since its adoption in 1993. Though the details are complicated, the upshot is simple: Putin, already in power for 20 years, is putting in place the pieces that allow him to keep calling the shots.

1. What’s this about?

Putin has rejected the notion of repealing term limits — as China’s leader, Xi Jinping, did in 2018 — as a way to remain president after his term ends in 2024. So in a Jan. 15 state-of-the-nation address, Putin unveiled a surprise plan to shift some powers from the presidency to other arms of the state. At the moment, the 67-year-old strongman enjoys almost-limitless authority in his role. Four years ahead of the end of his term, Putin outlined a series of proposed constitutional amendments to expand the authority of Russia’s parliament and particularly of its State Council, an advisory body that he established in 2000 (and already heads).

2. What’s in it for Putin?

Putin may be preparing to maintain his unrivaled authority by taking another position, such as speaker of parliament or head of the State Council. The shakeup also allows him to clean house. Though polls show that more than two-thirds of Russians still support him, Putin’s popularity has sunk recently to levels last seen before he annexed Crimea from Ukraine in 2014. Personnel changes atop the Russian government began almost immediately after Putin’s Jan. 15 speech, suggesting they were planned in advance. Putin’s loyal prime minister, Dmitry Medvedev, announced the resignation of his government. Hours later, Putin nominated Mikhail Mishustin, the little-known head of the Federal Tax Service, to that post.

3. Why go through all the trouble?

Putin is already the longest-serving Kremlin leader since Josef Stalin, and may have stretched his options for retaining power under the present system of “managed democracy.” He has sidelined political opposition, extended state control over key areas of the economy, and kept a tight grip on major news media. Amid discontent over economic stagnation in the country, Moscow witnessed the biggest anti-government protests in seven years last summer over the refusal to let opposition candidates contest city council elections. After completing two terms in 2008, Putin served as prime minister under Medvedev for four years, during which time the constitution was amended to extend the president’s term to six years. Putin reclaimed the presidency in 2012 and was re-elected in 2018 in a carefully-choreographed landslide.

4. How is this likely to pan out?

Insiders say the Kremlin is eager to put the changes in place before parliamentary elections due in September 2021. There are suggestions, too, that Putin may use the revision of presidential and parliamentary powers to call early elections in order to embed the reforms. Putin appointed a 75-member committee including prominent lawmakers and cultural figures to carry out his plans, and within days it had submitted a 21-page draft of the amendments. The document includes proposals for parliament to gain the right to approve ministers named by the prime minister, taking that privilege away from the president. The State Council would be enshrined in the constitution and oversee foreign and domestic policy, as well as coordinate between various government agencies.

5. Will Putin’s changes face opposition?

It’s too soon to know. In his two decades in power, he has restored Russia’s swagger as a global power by rebuilding the military, deepening ties with China, annexing the Crimean peninsula and reasserting Russia’s influence in the Middle East. Russia has a budget surplus, relatively little debt and one of the world’s largest reserves of foreign currency and gold. Putin’s Achilles heel is that he never tackled corruption. A small clique of his friends from his home town of St. Petersburg have gained vast fortunes under his rule. Still, Putin’s proposed changes represent potentially the most extensive revision of the powers of different state bodies since the 1993 constitution came into force to replace the Communist-era document after the Soviet Union’s collapse.

The Reference Shelf

  • QuickTakes on how Putin maintains his popularity and the long standoff in Ukraine.
  • Here’s a look at Russia during Putin’s two decades in power.
  • Masha Gessen examines “Putin’s Latest Power Grab” in an article in The New Yorker.
  • A Human Rights Watch report on how Russia became more repressive in 2019.
  • The Kremlin published a 20-year multimedia retrospective of Putin’s time in power that includes footage of him and U.S. President George Bush dancing in 2008.
  • Putin’s Jan. 15 state-of-the-nation address to Russia’s Federal Assembly.

— With assistance by Henry Meyer

By Jake Rudnitsky for bloomberg

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